The N.Y. Times suggests “hidden-city ticketing” — 4 problems they didn’t mention


As a travel agent for many years, I’ve tried every trick I could think of to save clients money. In the “good old days,” before airlines really got their revenue management departments together, many agents cheerfully issued a whole lot of tickets in ways that challenged airline rules. This weekend the New York Times wrote about one, but didn’t explain the potential problems.

Here are some examples of ticketing tricks that sometimes work.

    • “Throwaway” tickets – not using the return when a round-trip ticket was cheaper
    • “Back to back” ticketing – when a client is traveling to the same city twice but not staying over the weekend, issuing one round-trip ticket for the first and last flight, and another round-trip ticket for the middle flights (used mostly when Saturday -night stays were far more prevalent)
    • “hidden city” ticketing – booking a ticket to a city beyond the destination to get a cheaper fare and getting off the flight at an interim stop.

Last weekend, the New York Times actually did an article in their Sunday magazine suggesting “hidden-city” ticketing. While I have a great deal of respect for the so-called “Paper of Record,” they left out more than a few potential consequences.

Here’s the basic idea — Sometimes a flight between hub cities can be very expensive, whereas a connecting flight beyond can be a lot less. Take for example, a one-way ticket from San Francisco to Dallas on American. For one sample date in July, the lowest one-way fare is $629, where a connection to Tampa is $205. So, the suggested strategy in the article is to buy a ticket to Tampa and just “miss” your connection — Get off the flight in Dallas.

To be fair, the Times does point out several considerations — bring only carry-on luggage and it sometimes requires two separate tickets for round-trip flights, since the airlines will cancel your return reservations if you don’t show up for a flight. But, other than that, the article makes it sound pretty easy.

Here are a few things, however, that were left out.

1. If you have frequent flier mileage, and get mileage on the trip, the airline has am easy record of your flights and tickets. When an airline asks for your mileage number as part of the phone procedure to get you to the “right” agent, it allows the reservation agent to see all of your bookings.

If the airline sees a no-show on a flight, they might ignore it; but if they see more than one, they could well flag it for fraud. While they may not have legal recourse to get the money back from travelers, they can, and will, penalize travelers by taking frequent flier miles.

2. Since flights are so full these days, often overhead bins fill up. If you don’t have priority boarding or a seat in one of the first boarding zone, there’s always a chance the overhead bins will fill. In that case, the airline will “gate-check” your bag, without charge. If this happens, they will NOT just check it to a connecting point. While you might be planning to get off the plane in Dallas, your bag could end up in Tampa.

3. Similarly, if a flight is canceled, the airline may automatically rebook you on an alternative; it could be with a different connecting city. Try explaining to an airline agent while you absolutely MUST connect through your original city. Especially with a long line of people at customer service.

(Plus, see #2 — If you are rebooked onto another flight, it’s likely to be without a seat assignment, meaning the chances increase of being part of those late boarding groups that may have to gate-check luggage.)

4. Travel agents probably won’t do this for you. While an airline doesn’t have an easy way to charge passengers for breaking tariff rules, they have a very easy way to bill travel agents called “debit memos.” Airlines LOVE collecting money using these kinds of memos. If an airline sends a bill to an agent there are two choices, pay it, or forfeit the right to book that airline’s tickets in future.

Some travelers may still decide that hidden-city ticketing is worth the risk, and certainly that’s their right. But, just because a New York Times reporter thinks it’s a good idea, you have to think carefully if it’s a good idea for you personally.